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Isles of the Blest, Elysium, White Isle

6322: Elysium? Relief decoration, base on which stood a lekythos. Hermes. Attic workshop near the end of the 5C BC. National Archaeological Museum, Athens.

"And this majestic feeling remains with me for over three days: so persistently does the speech and voice of the orator ring in my ears that it is scarcely on the fourth or fifth day that I recover myself and remember that I really am here on earth, whereas till then I almost imagined myself to be living in the Islands of the Blessed, —so expert are our orators." (Plato, Menexenus 235c).


Elysium and rebirth

After death, the souls of the righteous are sent by the immortals to the Elysian Plain (Elysium), a favored region in Hades. In the Elysian Plain which is "at the ends of the earth"

"… life is easiest for men. No snow is there, nor heavy storm, nor ever rain, but ever does Ocean send up blasts of the shrill-blowing West Wind that they may give cooling to men …" (Homer, Odyssey 4.561ff.).

Pindar (518-438 BC), in one of his thrénoi (the thrénos is a dirge or song of lamentation) describes Elysium as follows:

"For them doth the strength of the sun shine below,
While night all the earth doth overstrow.
In meadows of roses their suburbs lie,
Roses all tinged with a crimson dye.
They are shaded by trees that incense bear,
And trees with golden fruit so fair.
Some with horses and sports of might,
Others in music and draughts delight.
Happiness there grows ever apace,
Perfumes are wafted o'er the loved place,
As the incense they strew where the gods' altars are
And the fire that consumes it is seen from afar."
(quoted by Plutarch, Moralia: Letter to Apollonius 35, 120c).

According to Pindar (Oly.2.55-75), the lawless spirits are immediately punished after death:

"… the reckless souls of those who have died on earth immediately pay the penalty—and for the crimes committed in this realm of Zeus there is a judge below the earth; with hateful compulsion he passes his sentence."

On the other hand the good lead an easy existence:

"But having the sun always in equal nights and equal days, the good receive a life free from toil, not scraping with the strength of their arms the earth, nor the water of the sea, for the sake of a poor sustenance. But in the presence of the honored gods, those who gladly kept their oaths enjoy a life without tears, while the others undergo a toil that is unbearable to look at."

Apparently, however, they will not remain in Elysium forever:

"Those who have persevered three times, on either side, to keep their souls free from all wrongdoing, follow Zeus' road to the end, to the tower of Cronos, where ocean breezes blow around the island of the blessed, and flowers of gold are blazing, some from splendid trees on land, while water nurtures others."

Rather, after three lifetimes, the souls of the good are conveyed to the Island of the Blest, ruled by Cronos and Rhea:

"With these wreaths and garlands of flowers they entwine their hands according to the righteous counsels of Rhadamanthys, whom the great father, the husband of Rhea whose throne is above all others, keeps close beside him as his partner."

In Plato (Meno 81b), Socrates appears commenting on Pindar:

"They say that the soul of man is immortal, and at one time comes to an end, which is called dying, and at another is born again, but never perishes."

Then Pindar is quoted:

"For from whomsoever Persephone shall accept requital for ancient wrong (pénthos), the souls of these she restores in the ninth year to the upper sun again; from them arise glorious kings and men of splendid might and surpassing wisdom, and for all remaining time are they called holy heroes amongst mankind."

Pindar is regarded here as adhering to the idea of reincarnation. Much later, also Virgil (70-19 BC) agrees with it in his own description of Elysium (Aeneid 6.637ff.), although for this author some souls are destined for reincarnation and others aren't. Aeneas' father Anchises 1 will not reincarnate; he says:

"Each of us suffers his own spirit: a few of us are later released to wander at will through broad Elysium, the joyous fields; until, in the fullness of time … nothing is left but pure ethereal sentience and the pure flame of the spirit." (Virgil, Aeneid 6.742).

Those who are destined for reincarnation drink from the waters of the river Lethe (Oblivion) before they are reborn. Virgil describes Elysium thus:

"Here an ampler ether clothes the meads with roseate light, and they know their own sun, and stars of their own. Some disport their limbs on the grassy wrestling-ground, vie in sports, and grapple on the yellow sand; some foot the rhythmic dances and chant poems aloud …" (Virgil, Aeneid 6.637).

Pindar could be one of the first poets to have introduced the idea of reincarnation. Yet Porphyry (c. AD 233-305) believes that Pythagoras (570-497 BC) was the first to introduce in Greece the idea of the transmigration of the souls (metempsychosis):

"But it became very well known to everyone that he said, first, that the soul is immortal; then, that it changes into other kinds of animals; and further, that at certain periods whatever has happened happens again, there being nothing absolutely new; and that all living things should be considered as belonging to the same kind. Pythagoras seems to have been the first to introduce these doctrines into Greece." (Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras 19).

And Diogenes Laertius (Lives of Eminent Philosophers 8.4-5), the mythographer Hyginus (Fabulae 112), and Diodorus Siculus (10.6.1-3). narrate how Euphorbus, who was killed at Troy by Menelaus (Hom.Il.17.60), later reincarnated as Pythagoras.

Herodotus, however, believes that the idea of metempsychosis came from Egypt:

"The Egyptians were the first who maintained the following doctrine, too, that the human soul is immortal, and at the death of the body enters into some other living thing then coming to birth; and after passing through all creatures of land, sea, and air, it enters once more into a human body at birth, a cycle which it completes in three thousand years. There are Greeks who have used this doctrine, some earlier and some later, as if it were their own…" (Herodotus, History 2.123.2).

Still Empedocles, a contemporary of Pindar, is known for having embraced the Pythagorean notion of metempsychosis.

For some, these news about reincarnation were not good news. Otherwise they hadn't said:

"Not to be born at all is best, far best that can befall. Next best, when born, with least delay to trace the backward way. For when youth passes with its giddy train, troubles on troubles follow, toils on toils … Last comes the worst and most abhorred stage of unregarded age, joyless, companionless and slow, of woes the crowning woe." (Citizens of Colonus. Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus 1225).

The Islands of the Blest

The Islands of the Blest is a place where the virtuous dwell after death, retaining their faculties and enjoying a life free of care. This is probably the last abode of the righteous soul (and no reincarnation seems to affect those living in these islands).

According to some, the Islands of the Blest were by the western limits of Libya, that is, beyond the pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar) in the Atlantic Ocean, or as Strabo says:

"… even calling by name certain Isles of the Blest, which, as we know, are still now pointed out, not very far from the headlands of Maurusia that lie opposite to Gades (now Cádiz)." (Strabo, Geography 3.2.13).

Above all these islands were a place "untouched by sorrow", where a blessed life could be lived after death. They were thus associated or identified with Elysium (the Elysian Plain, also called Elysian Fields), which was "at the ends of the earth". According to Strabo, this expression refers to the West:

"For both the pure air and the gentle breezes of Zephyrus properly belong to this country, since the country is not only in the west but also warm; and the phrase 'at the ends of the earth' properly belongs to it, where Hades has been 'mythically placed,' as we say." (Strabo, Geography 3.2.13).

On his descent to the Underworld, Aeneas meets his father Anchises 1 in Elysium (a part of Hades). There dwell souls who have not yet been born, and other souls who drink from the waters of the river Lethe (Oblivion) before they are reborn. (For the descent of Aeneas, see Map of the Underworld).

The White Isle

The White Isle—also a place where some were sent after death—was supposed to be a wooded island at the mouths of the river Ister (Danube).


List 

List of those who, after death, were sent to the Island(s) of the Blest, the White Isle, or the Elysian Plain (also called the Elysian Fields). Not seldom, they are couples (Achilles and Medea, Alcmena and Rhadamanthys, Menelaus and Helen). Alternative versions are given as "a)", "b)", etc. Pindar sings of the Island of the Blest (in singular).

Several accounts on the White Isle belong to Leonymus, king of Crotona (city in southern Italy) who made war against the Locri in Italy, and was the first to sail to the island, at the mouths of the Ister (Danube). There he saw the souls of the AIANTES (Ajax 1 and Ajax 2), Helen (wedded to Achilles), Patroclus 1, and Antilochus (one of the ACHAEAN LEADERS (Pau.3.19.12ff.). (For Elysium in Virgil, see Map of the Underworld.)


Person

Sent, after death, to:

Together with:

According to:

Achilles

a) White Isle
b) White Isle
c) Islands of the Blest
d) Island of the Blest
e) Elysian Plain
f) White Isle
g) Elysian Plain
h) Elysian Plain

a) Iphigenia
b) Helen
c) Medea
d) ---
e) Medea
f) ---
g) ---
h) Polyxena 1

a) Lib.Met.27.
b) Pau.3.19.13
c) Apd.Ep.5.5.
d) Pin.Oly.2.78.
e) Arg.4.811.
f) AETH.1.
g) QS.14.223.
h) Seneca, Troades 938

Ajax 1

White Isle

Pau.3.19.13

Ajax 2

White Isle

Pau.3.19.13

Alcmena

Islands of the Blest

Rhadamanthys

Lib.Met.33

Antilochus

White Isle

Pau.3.19.13

Cadmus

a) Elysian Plain
b) Islands of the Blest.

a) Harmonia 1
b) ---

a) Apd.3.5.4; Hyg.Fab.6. b)Pin.Oly.2.78.

Diomedes 2

Islands of the Blest

Ath.15.695.

Harmonia 1

Elysian Plain

Cadmus

Apd.3.5.4

Helen

a) Elysian Plain
b) White Isle

a) Menelaus.
b) Achilles.

a) Apd.Ep.6.29.
b) Pau.3.19.13

Iphigenia

White Isle

Achilles

Lib.Met.27

Lycus 2

Islands of the Blest

Apd.3.10.1

Medea

Islands of the Blest

Achilles

Apd.Ep.5.5

Memnon

Elysian Plain

QS.2.650.

Menelaus

Elysian Plain

Helen

Apd.Ep.6.29.

Neoptolemus

Elysian Plain

QS.3.760.

Patroclus 1

White Isle

Pau.3.19.13

Peleus

Island of the Blest.

Pin.Oly.2.78.

Penelope

Islands of the Blest

TEL.1.

Rhadamanthys

a) Islands of the Blest
b) Island of the Blest

a) Alcmena
b) ---

a) Lib.Met.33
b) Pin.Oly.2.78

Telegonus 3.

Islands of the Blest

TEL.1.


Selected references to the Islands of the Blest, the Elysian Plain, and the White Isle 

Island(s) of the Blest

Hesiod, Works and Days 155-173:
"But when earth had covered this generation also, Zeus the son of Cronos made yet another, the fourth, upon the fruitful earth, which was nobler and more righteous, a god-like race of hero-men who are called demi-gods, the race before our own, throughout the boundless earth. Grim war and dread battle destroyed a part of them, some in the land of Cadmus at seven-gated Thebes when they fought for the flocks of Oedipus, and some, when it had brought them in ships over the great sea gulf to Troy for rich-haired Helen's sake: there death's end enshrouded a part of them. But to the others father Zeus the son of Cronos gave a living and an abode apart from men, and made them dwell at the ends of earth. And they live untouched by sorrow in the islands of the blessed along the shore of deep-swirling Ocean, happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year, far from the deathless gods, and Cronos rules over them; for the father of men and gods released him from his bonds."

Pindar, Olympian Odes 2.51-85:
"… the reckless souls of those who have died on earth immediately pay the penalty—and for the crimes committed in this realm of Zeus there is a judge below the earth; with hateful compulsion he passes his sentence. But having the sun always in equal nights and equal days, the good receive a life free from toil, not scraping with the strength of their arms the earth, nor the water of the sea, for the sake of a poor sustenance. But in the presence of the honored gods, those who gladly kept their oaths enjoy a life without tears, while the others undergo a toil that is unbearable to look at. Those who have persevered three times, on either side, to keep their souls free from all wrongdoing, follow Zeus' road to the end, to the tower of Cronos, where ocean breezes blow around the island of the blessed, and flowers of gold are blazing, some from splendid trees on land, while water nurtures others. With these wreaths and garlands of flowers they entwine their hands according to the righteous counsels of Rhadamanthys, whom the great father, the husband of
Rhea whose throne is above all others, keeps close beside him as his partner. Peleus and Cadmus are counted among them, and Achilles who was brought there by his mother, when she had persuaded the heart of Zeus with her prayers—Achilles, who laid low Hector, the irresistible, unswerving pillar of Troy, and who consigned to death Memnon the Ethiopian, son of the Dawn. I have many swift arrows in the quiver under my arm, arrows that speak to the initiated. But the masses need interpreters. The man who knows a great deal by nature is truly skillful, while those who have only learned chatter with raucous and indiscriminate tongues in vain like crows."

The DIOSCURI to Theoclymenus 2, in Euripides, Helen 1676:
"And it is destined by the gods that the wanderer Menelaus will dwell in the islands of the blessed …"

Herodotus 3.26.1:
"So fared the expedition against Ethiopia. As for those who were sent to march against the Ammonians, they set out and journeyed from (Egyptian). Thebes with guides; and it is known that they came to the city of Oasis, inhabited by Samians said to be of the Aeschrionian tribe, seven days' march from Thebes across sandy desert; this place is called, in the Greek language, Islands of the Blest."

The above passage of Herodotus may be compared with the following of Lycophron, who says that "Islands of the Blest" were a place near Boeotian Thebes, not in Egyptian Thebes; Cassandra prophesies to her brother Hector 1:

Lycophron, Alexandra 1204ff.:
"And in the Islands of the Blest thou shalt dwell, a mighty hero, defender of the arrows of pestilence, where the sown folk (that is, the SPARTI). of Ogygus (see for example Pau.9.5.1). (etc.). … And the chiefs of the Ectenes (subjects of Ogygus, that is, Boeotians). shall with libations celebrate thy glory in the highest, even as the immortals."

Plato, Gorgias 523a:
"Socrates: Give ear then, as they say, to a right fine story, which you will regard as a fable, I fancy, but I as an actual account; for what I am about to tell you I mean to offer as the truth. By Homer's account, Zeus, Poseidon, and Pluto divided the sovereignty amongst them when they took it over from their father. Now in the time of Cronos there was a law concerning mankind, and it holds to this very day amongst the gods, that every man who has passed a just and holy life departs after his decease to the Isles of the Blest, and dwells in all happiness apart from ill; but whoever has lived unjustly and impiously goes to the dungeon of requital and penance which, you know, they call Tartarus. Of these men there were judges in Cronos' time, and still of late in the reign of Zeus—living men to judge the living upon the day when each was to breathe his last; and thus the cases were being decided amiss. So Pluto and the overseers from the Isles of the Blest came before Zeus with the report that they found men passing over to either abode undeserving …"

Plato, Gorgias 526c:
"Sometimes, when he discerns another soul that has lived a holy life in company with truth, a private man's or any others—especially, as I claim, Callicles, a philosopher's who has minded his own business and not been a busybody in his lifetime—he is struck with admiration and sends it off to the Isles of the Blest. And exactly the same is the procedure of Aeacus: each of these two holds a rod in his hand as he gives judgement; but Minos sits as supervisor, distinguished by the golden scepter that he holds, as Odysseus in Homer tells how he saw him—'Holding a golden scepter, speaking dooms to the dead.'"

Plato, Symposium 180b:
"This is the reason why they honored Achilles above Alcestis, giving him his abode in the Isles of the Blest."

Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 15.695:
"Dearest Harmodius, thou art not dead, I ween, but they say that thou art in the Islands of the Blest, where swift-footed Achilles lives, and, they say, the brave son of Tydeus, Diomedes."

Flavius Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 5.2:
" … the Islands of the Blest are to be fixed by the limits of Libya where they rise towards the uninhabited promontory."

 

Elysian Plain

Proteus 2 to Menelaus. Homer, Odyssey 4.561ff.:
"But for thyself, Menelaus, fostered of Zeus, it is not ordained that thou shouldst die and meet thy fate in horse-pasturing Argos, but to the Elysian plain and the bounds of the earth will the immortals convey thee, where dwells fair-haired Rhadamanthys, and where life is easiest for men. No snow is there, nor heavy storm, nor ever rain, but ever does Ocean send up blasts of the shrill-blowing West Wind that they may give cooling to men; for thou hast Helen to wife, and art in their eyes the husband of the daughter of Zeus."

Hera to Thetis. Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 4.811:
"When thy son shall come to the Elysian plain … it is fated that he be the husband of Medea, Aeetes' daughter …"

Quintus Smyrnaeus, The Fall of Troy 2.648:
"… and they scatter dust
Down on his grave, still shrill the battle-cry,
In memory of
Memnon, each to each.
But he in
Hades' mansions, or perchance
Amid the Blessed on the Elysian Plain
Laugheth …"

Helen to Polyxena 1. Seneca, Troades 942:
" … poor Polyxena, whom Achilles bids be given to him, and be sacrificed in presence of his ashes, that in the Elysian fields he may wed with thee …"

 

White Isle

Aethiopis 1:
"The Achaeans … lay out the body of Achilles, while Thetis, arriving with the
Muses and her sisters, bewails her son, whom she afterwards catches away from the pyre and transports to the White Island."

Pausanias, Description of Greece 3.19.11:
"In the Euxine at the mouths of the Ister is an island sacred to Achilles. It is called White Island, and its circumference is twenty stades. It is wooded throughout and abounds in animals, wild and tame, while on it is a temple of Achilles with an image of him."

Apollodorus, Epitome 5.5:
"The death of Achilles filled the army with dismay, and they buried him with
Patroclus in the White Isle, mixing the bones of the two together. It is said that after death Achilles consorts with Medea in the Isles of the Blest." ().

The White Isle mentioned above by Apollodorus and Pausanias should be the same that Poseidon promised Thetis that he would give Achilles:

Quintus Smyrnaeus, The Fall of Troy 3.770:
"Refrain from endless mourning for thy son.
Not with the dead shall he abide, but dwell
With Gods, as doth the might of
Heracles,
And Dionysus ever fair. Not him
Dread doom shall prison in darkness evermore,
Nor Hades keep him. To the light of
Zeus
Soon shall he rise; and I will give to him
A holy island for my gift: it lies
Within the Euxine Sea: there evermore
A God thy son shall be …"

Yet Neoptolemus sees in a dream how the soul of his father Achilles leaves for the Elysian Plain:

Quintus Smyrnaeus, The Fall of Troy 14.223:
"Then as a wind-breath swift he (Achilles). fleeted thence,
And came to the Elysian Plain, whereto
A path to heaven reacheth, for the feet
Ascending and descending of the Blest."


Related sections Underworld, Map of the Underworld 
Sources
Abbreviations

See text above. Further reading: MARCOS MARTINEZ HERNANDEZ: Canarias en la Mitología (Cabildo Insular de Tenerife, 1992), and "Las Islas de los Bienaventurados …" in JUAN ANTONIO LÓPEZ FÉREZ (ED.): Mitos en la literatura griega arcaica y clásica (Ediciones Clásicas, 2002, Madrid).

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